I’m back, with a long overdue installment in my Cold Comfort series on the early history of automotive air conditioning. Today, I’m tackling this 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser I spotted at a show last summer. The Turnpike Cruiser is already well-known as being one of the most over-the-top cars of the 1950’s. So of course it has an equally interesting HVAC system.
Before even getting into the air conditioning, lets talk about some of the unique ventilation features of the TC. For starters, there are the two individually adjustable fresh air intakes at the windshield header (functional), complete with little antennae (alas, non-functional).
In the back, we have a roll down “Breezeway” rear window. These air intakes, coupled rear window must have to make for quite effective cabin ventilation, even without air conditioning.
But it is the air conditioning system that is the star of the show. For 1955 and 1956, Mercury shared the trunk mounted air conditioning system that was used on the 1955-57 Lincoln. For 1957, Mercury (and Ford) switched over to this interesting cowl mounted setup (Lincoln would continue to use a trunk mounted system until their crazy 1958 A/C system came out).
Packaging was a major problem on all early automotive air conditioning systems: Dashboards of the period did not have openings for panel vents, nor were they designed to accommodate the all the requisite ductwork and dampers that we associate with modern A/C systems. This is why many early systems used vents located either in the ceiling, or mounted underneath the dashboard. Mercury, in their 1957 setup, took an unorthodox approach to this problem: They mounted their vents up by the base of the windshield, where you might normally find the defroster outputs.
There were rotary dials by the vents that could be used to open and close them, as well as adjusting airflow direction. In addition to the 1957 and 1958 Mercury, this setup was also used for the factory air option on the 1957-1958 Ford and 1958 Edsel. At roughly $400 (about $3,600 in 2018), it was a pricey option, and the take rate was understandably low (about 1.5% for the Mercury and Edsel, and virtually nil for Ford).
This system was only used for two model years, before being replaced by a more conventional hang-on design in 1959 (pictured above). While the 57-58 system certainly looked a lot tidier and better integrated than a hang-on unit, it likely didn’t work as well.
While I have not had the privilege of experiencing the 57-58 system in operation, it is reasonable to speculate about some of the limitations that would have caused Ford to ditch it after just two years.
Between the smallish vents and their location at the base of the windshield, this setup was probably not very effective. The cold air coming out of the vents would have warmed up almost immediately upon blending with the hot air trapped in the greenhouse under the windshield. You can even test this out yourself with a simple experiment: Try cooling your car with the A/C discharging only through the defrosters. It won’t work nearly as well.
I also suspect that this system would have been rather noisy in use. The single large plenum coming directly off they evaporator is very similar to modern defrosters, and likely would have been just as loud. The hard material of the plenum would not have had sound deadening qualities of a twisting rubberized hose.
While Ford only used this system for two years, it is an interesting evolutionary dead-end in the history of automotive air conditioning.